Some people have fixed mindsets. They believe that they have a certain amount of intelligence that can't be increased or reduced. Their A-level grades were effectively pre-destined at birth. Other people have growth mindsets. They believe that their intelligence is flexible and has enormous potential: with effort, application and curiosity they can and will improve their grades. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has spent her career uncovering these mindsets and how they are cultivated in people.
Looking back a couple of decades I can recognise both mindsets in myself. You see, at the age of nine I had set the goal for myself to study at Cambridge University. I knew I didn't have 'raw talent' (whatever that might be) but I made it my mission to find out what I needed to know to succeed. This meant cracking the code on getting amazing grades as well as discovering what else I needed to know to get through the admissions process. I believed that with effort and application I could succeed. And I did. I earned 5 Grade As at A-Level and studied Geography at Newnham College, Cambridge.
However, one area of my academic learning was thwarted by a fixed mindset. Maths was my nemesis. To this day, I'm not sure whether it was the fixed mindset of the schools I went to or whether it came from me that was my undoing. I remember sitting in my primary school classroom with an orange textbook in front of me. All my friends had purple text books. I was behind them but I could see no way in which I could catch up. It felt like I was destined to be less good at them at maths and however much effort I put in I could not catch up.
This feeling of being 'fixed' at a certain level of attainment was perpetuated at secondary school. When we were 'set' for maths at the end of year 8 my friends were placed in the 'Express Set' and I was put in 'Set 1'. I worked and worked to try to get into the Express Set but it didn't pay off. I would be in Set 1 for the rest of my mathematical career. I had no belief in my ability and still believe to this day that maths is my weakest subject.
What was I able to do to succeed at A-Level that I couldn't do in maths?
When I was studying for my A-Levels in Chemistry, Biology, Geography and English Literature (plus General Studies - but I didn't have to work for that) I adopted certain behaviours that enabled me to grow my ability in each of these areas. What were these?
• I had my eye on the prize. Not a day went by when I didn't remind myself of my goal of getting into Cambridge. That was the prize and nothing was going to distract me from it.
• I did the work. Every study period, evening and weekend I sat down and concentrated on getting the work done to the best of my ability.
• I sought feedback. When I didn't understand anything or it didn't go as well as I wanted I sought feedback.
• I taught myself. When my teachers or the text books didn't make things clear for me I looked elsewhere for the information. I became my own teacher.
• I became a master of past-papers. I had done that many past-papers I could read the mind of the examiner and knew the mark schemes inside-out.
When I was studying maths these opportunities weren't available. The prize of getting into the Express Set was seemingly closed to me. I did the work that was necessary but the feedback wasn't forthcoming. When I got a D that was all I got. Just red crosses beside my errors and the damning letter next to my work - nothing to help me know where I'd gone wrong and an unapproachable teacher who wasn't willing to help. I didn't have enough confidence in my ability in the subject to teach myself.
Succeeding in your A-Levels
As exam season approaches now is the time to start believing that you can grow your ability and succeed. There is so much you can still do to improve your grades and expand your intelligence. It is my mission to help you believe in your ability to grow and succeed in your exams.
On Monday 8th February 2016 and 8pm I'll be hosting a free, online workshop that will help you take the first step on this journey. My special guest will be Martin Griffin. He's the Director of Sixth Form at The Blue Coat School in Oldham. The sixth form has received an Outstanding rating from Ofsted twice. Martin, along with his colleague, Martin Oakes has written a book called The A-Level Mindset which is published in March. In the workshop Martin will be sharing the five pillars to achievement at A-Level as well as one of the exercises from his book. This exercise will have a direct impact on your ability to improve your AS and A2 grades. You can sign-up for the workshop here.
Lucy Parsons empowers 15-18 year olds to achieve their academic dreams by helping them to get outstanding grades and into their dream university. Lucy is a graduate of Cambridge University, a qualified teacher and the author of The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take.